My father was a house painter. My mother was a cook for a private family. My father did some painting for this private family. That’s how the old man and the old lady met. (When I was a kid, all the kids referred to their parents as the old man and the old lady.) I think they got married.
Anyhow, I was born in a tenement at 83rd street and Avenue A, which is now York Avenue in New York City. When I was about three my family moved to 85th Street between Avenue A and First Avenue. We lived in a cold water flat. In fact I lived in a cold water flat until my late teens. I spent all my boyhood in 85th street. I attended P. S. 77 at 86th street and First Avenue, which is still there. I hated school, but still to this day I remember the names of all of my teachers. They were all witches and bats and ogres.
My time when I was not attending school was spent in the streets. My recreation was spent in many diverse ways. Gang fights with kids from neighboring streets. Stealing potatoes from vegetable stands and roasting them in tin cans which swung by a wire. Playing stick ball which is a sort of baseball, but played with a broom stick and tennis ball. Sometimes the ball would be hit into a cellar. One or two of the older kids would run down the cellar after it and spend some time in findingit. The reason, some of the girls would run down the cellar at the same time. I was a little young to know what they did there. In fact I very rarely played ball because they realized I was a lousy player.
We also played shinny, which is similar to polo without horses. It was a matter of hitting a flattened tin can with a stick from one goal to another. The goals were manhole covers. In the summer we went swimming at the foot of 89th street and the East River. For a change of scenery, we would take trips to distant parts. This consisted of hitching on trucks down First Avenue to about 34th street. Then doing the same thing back to 85th street. Occasionally, we would venture up to Central Park. Everything was horse-drawn at that time. Election night we would build a big bonfire in the street, from wood which we collected a month before. On Halloween, flour would be put into a stocking. Then we would sock the girls with these weapons. Thanksgiving we masqueraded in our parents’ clothes and went from house to house to collect pennies.
I had a large collection of cowboy, animal, baseball players, prizefighters etc. pictures which were distributed in cigarette packages at that time. Today they are collectors items. On Saturdays and Sundays I would attend the silent movies whenever I could dig up a nickel. The movies-that was my ambition then. Cartooning was so far away, even though I drew like every kid does, but I never thought of it as my life work. No, I wanted to be a movie actor. Alas, that ambition never materialized.
At 14 I graduated from public school. That summer I worked at my first job. It was in a drug store. I did everything – mopping the floor, cleaning chandeliers, dusting medicine bottles, chopping, wood, running errands, filling bottles with some bug killing liquid, calling for people to notify them they were wanted on the phone in the drugstore. I worked from 8 to 6, six days a week, for which I received four dollars.
After summer vacation I went to Stuyvesant High School. I attended there for two years. The first year I attended afternoon classes. The second year I attended morning classes. It was then that I obtained one of the nicest jobs I ever had. It only lasted a week. At that time there was a motion picture bazaar to be held at the old Madison Square Garden on East 26th street. All of the movie companies had exhibits there. The day the thing opened, they had a parade with some movie stars. It started uptown and I followed it to the Garden.
I hung around outside for a while when a man approached me and asked me if I wanted a job. It was a job selling programs of each day’s activities. So there I was every afternoon and evening for one whole week among such stars as Mary Pickford, Maurice Costello, Anita Stewart, Earle Williams, Theda Bara, and many others. After that all jobs were repugnant to me. After I left high school I had to help support the family. So it was one job after another from then on. Shipping clerk, packer, dish washer, errand boy, office boy etc., etc.
I was 18 years old when I realized that becoming a movie actor was far out of reach. So, liking to draw, I decided to look for a job in that field. I applied for a job doing lettering on college pennants. I was fired after two weeks. Then I applied for a job doing movie titles. I was fired after two weeks. Then I applied for a job painting forget-me-nots and other flowers on baby rattles. At last I made good. I held that job for four years.
In the meantime I attended the Art Students League here in New York. I went there in the evenings. The only class in which there was a vacancy was a class instructed by a John Sloan.
I never heard of him, but he turned out to be a wonderful instructor. Sloan was a fine arts man and he imbued all of his pupils with the idea of doing just the fine arts. He was prejudiced against all commercial art. He felt that it was better to work for a living as a plumber or in a laundry and to work at fine art in your spare time. [a hypocritical attitude since Sloan spent years living off the proceeds of his Sunday puzzle cartoon feature done for the Philadelphia Press – Allan] I became imbued with this idea, so I decided that I was going into the fine arts. I hated the idea though of working as a plumber or in a laundry. Anyway, these were happy years for me. I enjoyed the spirit of cameraderie of the League. After five years with Sloan and in a slack period of baby rattle painting, I decided to do something with the many drawings that I made during these years.
I consulted the classified telephone book and jotted down the names of a number of publications. I took a handful of drawings and started to call on these publishing houses. I started at the Battery and worked my way uptown from there. The following day I Started from the street where I left off the previous day. My first break came at 34th street. It was a publisher of cheap pulp magazines, cowboy stories, etc. They liked my stuff and gave me a story to illustrate. I received seven dollars for my first published drawing. From then on I decided to become a cartoonist.